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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Two: Enid


LATE in the afternoon of the sixth of August, Claude and his empty wagon were bumping along the level road over the flat country between Vicount and the Lovely Creek valley. He had made two trips to town that day. Though he had kept his heaviest team for the hot afternoon pull, his horses were too tired to be urged off a walk. Their necks were marbled with sweat stains, and their flanks were plastered with the white dust that rose at every step. Their heads hung down, and their breathing was deep and slow. The wood of the green-painted wagon seat was blistering hot to the touch. Claude sat at one end of it, his head bared to catch the faint stir of air that sometimes dried his neck and chin and saved him the trouble of pulling out a handkerchief. On every side the wheat stubble stretched for miles and miles. Lonely straw stacks stood up yellow in the sun and cast long shadows. Claude peered anxiously along the distant locust hedges which told where the road ran. Ernest Havel had promised to meet him somewhere on the way home. He had not seen Ernest for a week: since then Time had brought prodigies to birth.

At last he recognized the Havels’ team along way off, and he stopped and waited for Ernest beside a thorny hedge, looking thoughtfully about him. The sun was already low. It hung above the stubble, all milky and rosy with the heat, like the image of a sun reflected in grey water. In the east the full moon had just risen, and its thin silver surface was flushed with pink until it looked exactly like the setting sun. Except for the place each occupied in the heavens, Claude could not have told which was which. They rested upon opposite rims of the world, two bright shields, and regarded each other,—as if they, too, had met by appointment.

Claude and Ernest sprang to the ground at the same instant and shook hands, feeling that they had not seen each other for a long while.

“Well, what do you make of it, Ernest?”

The young man shook his head cautiously, but replied no further. He patted his horses and eased the collars on their necks.

“I waited in town for the Hastings paper,” Claude went on impatiently. “England declared war last night.”

“The Germans,” said Ernest, “are at Liege. I know where that is. I sailed from Antwerp when I came over here.”

“Yes, I saw that. Can the Belgians do anything?”

“Nothing.” Ernest leaned against the wagon wheel and drawing his pipe from his pocket slowly filled it. “Nobody can do anything. The German army will go where it pleases.”

“If it’s as bad as that, why are the Belgians putting up a fight?”

“I don’t know. It’s fine, but it will come to nothing in the end. Let me tell you something about the German army, Claude.”

Pacing up and down beside the locust hedge, Ernest rehearsed the great argument; preparation, organization, concentration, inexhaustible resources, inexhaustible men. While he talked the sun disappeared, the moon contracted, solidified, and slowly climbed the pale sky. The fields were still glimmering with the bland reflection left over from daylight, and the distance grew shadowy,—not dark, but seemingly full of sleep.

“If I were at home,” Ernest concluded, “I would be in the Austrian army this minute. I guess all my cousins and nephews are fighting the Russians or the Belgians already. How would you like it yourself, to be marched into a peaceful country like this, in the middle of harvest, and begin to destroy it?”

“I wouldn’t do it, of course. I’d desert and be shot.”

“Then your family would be persecuted. Your brothers, maybe even your father, would be made orderlies to Austrian officers and be kicked in the mouth.”

“I wouldn’t bother about that. I’d let my male relatives decide for themselves how often they would be kicked.”

Ernest shrugged his shoulders. “You Americans brag like little boys; you would and you wouldn’t! I tell you, nobody’s will has anything to do with this. It is the harvest of all that has been planted. I never thought it would come in my life-time, but I knew it would come.”

The boys lingered a little while, looking up at the soft radiance of the sky. There was not a cloud anywhere, and the low glimmer in the fields had imperceptibly changed to full, pure moonlight. Presently the two wagons began to creep along the white road, and on the backless seat of each the driver sat drooping forward, lost in thought. When they reached the corner where Ernest turned south, they said goodnight without raising their voices. Claude’s horses went on as if they were walking in their sleep. They did not even sneeze at the low cloud of dust beaten up by their heavy foot-falls,—the only sounds in the vast quiet of the night.

Why was Ernest so impatient with him, Claude wondered. He could not pretend to feel as Ernest did. He had nothing behind him to shape his opinions or colour his feelings about what was going on in Europe; he could only sense it day by day. He had always been taught that the German people were pre-eminent in the virtues Americans most admire; a month ago he would have said they had all the ideals a decent American boy would fight for. The invasion of Belgium was contradictory to the German character as he knew it in his friends and neighbours. He still cherished the hope that there had been some great mistake; that this splendid people would apologize and right itself with the world.

Mr. Wheeler came down the hill, bareheaded and coatless, as Claude drove into the barnyard. “I expect you’re tired. I’ll put your team away. Any news?”

“England has declared war.”

Mr. Wheeler stood still a moment and scratched his head. “I guess you needn’t get up early tomorrow. If this is to be a sure enough war, wheat will go higher. I’ve thought it was a bluff until now. You take the papers up to your mother.”